Thursday, April 30, 2015

Okehampton, Devon


Social platform

I seem to have come across a lot of pubs and inns called the White Hart recently. This is not surprising, as it’s apparently the fifth most common pub name in Britain. But a fair number of the examples I’ve noticed have been large establishments – White Hart Hotels – and several have had imposing three-dimensional signs, like this large-antlered beast in the centre of Okehampton.

The white hart, emblem of Richard II, goes back a long way, so it’s not surprising that a lot of old inns and hotels are named after him. This one is a 17th and 18th-century building with a portico consisting of a row of painted columns of local granite (in the Tuscan order) and a large balcony above. There the hart stands, surveying the main street below. He must have seen a lot in his time up there – the comings and goings of travellers, early and late arrivals at countless balls and assemblies, ins and outs of the Town Hall across the road. I was told that the place also played its role in elections. Okehampton was a rotten borough until the Reform Act of 1832, electing two MPs. Apparently the candidates used this balcony to address the populace in the street below. Before, no doubt, disappearing inside for sustenance with their friends. The social media of the day.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ipswich, Suffolk


Turning a corner – once more

Regular readers will have noticed my liking for buildings that deal stylishly with an acute angle, giving builders the excuse for a tight, neat curve or even a tower. One such reader* has sent me a photograph of this kind of building in Ipswich (a place I don’t know at all well) and as he guessed, it’s very much up my street (or up my acutely converging thoroughfares). It was built in c. 1903 as the premises of H. Sneezum & Co to designs by a local architect, Harvey Winkworth. My correspondent tells me that the original design (of which there’s a drawing in the Suffolk County Record Office) had the building coming to a sharp point, but that this was modified, with the curved wall and pointed roof that we see now.

Pedimented sash windows and fairly orthodox early-20th century shop fronts form a facade that’s made just that bit special by the corner feature with its pointed roof. It stands out, that roof, and I should think Mr Sneezum must have liked the way his roof line stood out from the architectural and retail crowd. Perhaps other locals did too. “I’ll meet you outside Sneezum’s” or “Turn right at Sneezum’s” – I can imagine people saying things like that as they got used to this turret-like feature, standing guard at its corner and becoming something of a landmark. I too am pleased to make its acquaintance.

*Thanks to Bob Kindred for altering me to this building and supplying the picture.

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Postscript In my post above I avoided saying anything about what Sneezum's sold in their large shop. I'd seen online references to them operating as pawnbrokers, also to a shop (but it was unclear if it was this shop) selling clothing. A reader (see comments section) has come across another online reference, which includes an early photograph and says that someone bought a tennis racket, hockey stick, binoculars, and a camera there. A modern business called Sneezums operates as a jeweller and photographic retailer in Bury St Edmunds.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Pillerton Hersey, Warwickshire


Sun and stone

It’s a plain doorway and belongs to a modest church. The one bit of ornate carving – the cluster of leaves on the terminal to the dripstone – is badly worn (the different colour of its stone suggests it is a replacement anyway). What we’re left with, framing the Victorian panelled door, is a trio of slender shafts topped with the simplest of capitals and leading the eye upwards to a matching trio of mouldings that make up the inner part of the arch. Framing this are more mouldings, then the dripstone and its terminal. The subtleties of these mouldings haven’t quite been obliterated by the attacks that wind, rain, and frost have launched on the soft surface of the stone. They’re quite deeply cut – in some places undercut – to make the best of the sunlight on this south-facing wall and produce a pattern of light and shade. This pattern varies with the depth of the cutting and the breadth of the mouldings, some thick, some thin.

Thirteenth-century masons had a repertoire of moulding patterns to produce effects like this – Victorian antiquaries spent much time tracing the patterns of these mouldings and recording them in books as examples of the style they called Early English Gothic. But what matters is that with simple visual means they could create a unified look that wonderfully exploited the contrasts of natural light and shade. The result could be as simple as a pair of plain shafts on either side of a window, or as complex as the deep mouldings achieve in some greater churches and monasteries. At Pillerton Hersey we are somewhere between these two extremes, but with enough ridge and furrow that we can enjoy the magical effects of sun on stone.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

London revealed


London Night and Day: Illustration of the Month

In contrast to my illustration last month, this month’s offering is from a well known illustrator and author. Osbert Lancaster (1908–86) was probably best known as a cartoonist and had a small but important influence on the development of British political cartooning through the daily ‘pocket cartoons’ he did, for decades, in the Daily Express. But Lancaster had more strings to his bow. He was an enthusiastic traveller, and recorded some of his impressions – of Greece especially, in books such as Classical Landscape With Figures and Sailing to Byzantium. Both of these books are funny and perceptive and have interesting things to say about the places he visits and the buildings he looks at and draws. He also wrote a number of books on architecture, illustrated with his own cartoons. Pillar to Post is probably the best known of these. Others include Drayneflete Revealed and Progress At Pelvis Bay – their titles are true to their lighthearted tone.

London Night and Day is a book Lancaster illustrated but didn’t, as far as I know, write.* My illustration is the cover of the first edition, which came out in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The book shows you the sights of London, through the prism of a 24-hour day, introducing different aspects of the city at appropriate times – shops in the morning, some cultural sites in the afternoon, theatre in the early evening, clubs later, and so on into the early hours when the market traders of Billingsgate are at work, offloading their piscatorial produce.

Lancaster’s cover encapsulates the architectural side of the book, though not the omnipresent human side of it (perhaps the influence of the publishers, The Architectural Press, was at work here). But even without Lancaster’s tweedy, hatted human characters, the cover is appealing. Its simple flat-colour drawings sum up a world of London architecture, from Thames-side warehouses to Regency terraces, and a lot of what the book describes, from parks to theatres, churches to shops. The diagonal division into night and day is a lovely touch and the lettering in the central panel works very well – particularly the way the illustrator has made use of the light and dark division of the cover to allow the word ‘NIGHT’ to appear black on white and the word ‘DAY’ to be reversed out of grey.

For anyone interested in this sort of thing, it’s worth looking out for a copy of London Night and Day. I already have two, one a slightly later edition with the Festival of Britain material removed and a higher price (five shillings instead of three and sixpence: inflation city). But you don’t have to haunt the secondhand bookshops. Old House Books have thoughtfully done a reprint that’s surely worth a purchase by any lover of London. Hurrah!

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*Note No author’s name is given, but the title page credits one Sam Lambert as the book’s ‘editor’. No one I’ve asked knows the identity of Sam Lambert. Did Lancaster himself write it? Or some of it? Is ‘Sam Lambert’ a portmanteau name made up of the names of two or three writers (it has a bit of ‘Osbert’ in it, of course). Who knows?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Kingly Street, London


Mr and Mrs Atlas

Here’s a brief post as I wrestle with a deadline.

There are whole books about looking up in London, and rightly so: you miss a lot if you don’t. A chance glance when hurrying along Kingly Street in search of congenial friends in a pub led me to stop briefly and take a photograph of these figures through the gloom of dusk. They remind me of those baroque atlases – common in central European cities like Prague – that seem to strain to hold up doorways in grand city houses. I’ve noticed them in London too, in particular in a very studied baroque revival facade in Mortimer Street.

Here the figures are on a more modest frontage, with lots of glazed tiles. It’s almost as if the architect threw in a bit of baroquery as visual relief and to stop the frontage looking like a kitchen. It’s a standard assemblage – swags (heavy), scrolls (curvaceous), date stone (bulgy). And the figures: male and female supporters straining at their job and somewhat squashed-looking, but with enough space to stick their elbows out and their knees up, as if to support the swags. A neat and confident bit of decoration from 1911, in defiance of the Cubism, Futurism, and abstraction that were bursting out everywhere in the visual arts. Tradition still had its place.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Piccadilly, London


Formerly, formally: modernist style

In modernist design, we used to be taught, a ‘style’ is not imposed on the building or the object being designed: form follows function. A Brno chair by Mies van der Rohe, a door handle by Walter Gropius, a door by Le Corbusier are the way the are because that’s the way they work best.

Aren’t they? Well, not entirely. That tubular framework on the chair is brightly polished, that door handle aligns precisely with the light switch, that door had a painting on it for goodness sake. They look like that because the architect liked the way they looked. Modernism is a style, just as Gothic or Baroque are styles.

And here’s a funny thing. When it’s the function of a building to be glamorous, to be an upmarket shop in Piccadilly or on Fifth Avenue, which has to look right to attract the right kind of customers, part of the building’s function is to be stylish. So form does follow function after all – but in a stylish sort of way.

The Simpson store in Piccadilly, designed by Joseph Emberton in the mid-1930s, was built in just such a fashion: stone cladding, beautiful detailing, shop windows with gorgeous concave glazing that seems to invite you to fall into the window display and wallow around in it. It’s structurally clever too – the steel frame is constructed so that the shop has vast uninterrupted floors, ideal whether you’re selling men’s clothing....or books. Because it’s a branch of Waterstones [sic] booksellers now, and the current owners have their own annoyingly apostropheless name above the door.

But to one side they have left the old Simpson name, in its special rounded letterform by Ashley Havinden. Different colours of metal are used to differentiate the parts of the name so that we can read the ‘p’ in Simpson as the ‘P’ in Piccadilly. The whole thing is carefully arranged along the horizontal divisions in the wall cladding too. It still looks a class act 80 years on. A stylish piece of work indeed.*

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*No, I’m not very impressed with the recently added ‘formerly’ floating around above the original letters. But I wanted to concentrate on the good things here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Evercreech, Somerset


High and bright

The dazzling painted screen at Long Sutton in my previous post attracted quite a lot of admiration, so here’s another example of restored colour in the late-medieval manner, this time from the church of St Peter, Evercreech, in the same county of Somerset. Like a number of Somerset wooden roofs (the county is rich in medieval church woodwork), the one at Evercreech is inhabited by a flock of angels.
The angelic host look down at us in the nave, their multi-coloured wings pointing towards us, their hands grasping shields, their hair gilded, and their pale faces marked with the merest dot of red, like a touch of blusher. 

The ties beams themselves, plus the other main components of this medieval roof are vividly painted and gilded, and this colouring stands out against the unpainted timbers and the whitewashed walls. As with the Long Sutton screen, this painted roof provides just a hint of the bright colour with which many medieval churches were covered. Anyone who wants to see the kind of effect that coloured decoration can achieve in a high-status building should visit the glorious Sainte-Chapelle in Paris – it’s like stepping inside an enormous jewel box. The effect in this English church is more home-spun. But the carved angels still draw the eye upward, as no doubt their medieval creators intended, so that we can visualise in our minds’ eyes the greater heavenly host.